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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Re-inventing Universities in China

A friend of mine forwarded me this CCTV video (scroll down) about the re-inventing of universities in China and discussion with the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University.
Here are my observations:
1. That the Vice Chancellor reiterated that students do not only learn from teachers, but from everyone they interact with in their life, including other students. That is mentioned by Alvin Toffler in his book "Revolutionary Wealth"

2. That the Vice Chancellor is creating an environment for change (very much what 'Bucky' Buckminster Fuller) such that students and staff from different disciplines can come together and interact, creating a multi-disciplinary approach to studying. However, note that the university still divide studies into different disciplines, instead of approaching them from generalised principles.

3. That the University is looking at an assessment of academic results as entry into the university, such that it is fairer to candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds and rural regions. In the context of Singapore, should this mean that if we cast our university admission nets further to the rural folks in ASEAN, will we give scholarships to students from the minority tribes in Borneo, Sulawesi and Papua, though they do not have the sparkling A1s that scholars ought to have? Also, should these rural students having learned to be a brilliant scholar in a field that has little application to their hometowns, such as Computer Scientist, mean that they are better off remaining as the university professors or executive jobs in Singapore?

4. About Fudan University's curriculum of specialising their students only in the fourth year of their study. Perhaps they are coming closer to the realisation that there isn't really such a thing as a 'specialist', in that the universe operates on generalised principles. A friend of mine used to tell me that specialisation is only for insects.

5. I am impressed with the young CEO's quest to live his dream and also his sharp analytical mind towards capturing customer requirements and serving his clients. However, he may be hard pressed to enter any of the prestigious universities in China or abroad. The Vice Chancellor has even turned down the (hypothetical) suggestion to write a letter supporting the CEO's application into university should that be required one day. This is clear evidence that education systems today are still unable to pick up individual talents and doing them justice in terms of academic grades. Toffler mentioned about the need to treat students as individuals in Third Wave education, but we are still far from this ideal today.

6. About the lady who returned to study in university despite her good career at that time and came to graduate. Though she said that it is her dream to complete her education in a university, I suspect it also had a lot to do with the Chinese cultural perception of holding a piece of qualification in order to progress in her career and for earning respect in society. This is dangerous if universities continue to lag behind in pedaegogy, updated knowledge and teaching medium. Bucky said that the future universities are likened to be production houses of documentary movies. This is already happening in Youtube, but hardly anyone would call it a university.

7. That the Vice Chancellor mentioned about the need for universities to return to their fundamentals to explore the 'truth' of everything, whatever in costs are. This is ideal, but how are you going to do this in a dictatorship? I agree that true education comes only when we have enough mental space and physical space. That will lead to an open society and critical thinking, as advocated by author and financial market guru George Soros, that is, when dogmas will have lived its natural life and died.
The video demonstrates the contrasting perception and concepts of what education is, between Eastern and Western civilisation. A rare treat. It also shows that China is progressing at astonishing pace and surprising openness.

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